Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Can you get enough of me?


Directed by David Leitch
Written by Drew Pearce

Spoilers: moderate

Whatever else you can say about him, and I would consider myself a fan, David Leitch has, with six movies in ten years, parleyed an impressively prolific career out of his previous, more narrowly-channeled career as a stuntman and stunt coordinator.  (Which he still kind of is, of course, as a coordinator of coordinators, and, in his role as one of the founders of the action film-oriented production company, 87North, a coordinator of coordinator of coordinators.)  Not bad for the guy who once couldn't get the DGA to afford him a co-directorial credit on John Wick, and while saying that he's moved from strength to strength in his career would be pretty ridiculous, since his best movie remains his credited debut, Atomic Blonde, I've enjoyed every Leitch-directed movie I've so far seen.  That includes this one, though it's the nearest-run of themI'll disclose I've never seen Hobbs & Shaw, but you try keeping up with Fast and Furious moviesand that's something of a pity, because after these ten years and six films, The Fall Guy has not only the character of Leitch taking stock of his own career and place in pop culture, but that of a personal, engraved invitation for everyone who sees it to love and understand, as Leitch does, his whole art form, that of the movie stuntpeople who pull off the impossible to make it look real, because it is real, or at least real enough for it to hurt.

The (self-)love comes through: the movie is literally about a director who wants to fuck her stuntman, and I shall leave that one for you.  I'm not unmoved by it, even if it's also so passionate about stuntpeople not getting enough creditsomething that feels like it's been a constant refrain for the past decade, which is certainly a form of credit, though that doesn't necessarily mean it's enoughthat it can get downright preachy about it, and it seems I enjoy a movie getting preachy about a niche parochial issue such as "should stunt coordinators get Oscars?" (I mean, I can think of some reasons why death defiance shouldn't be made into a competition*) about as much as I enjoy it when it involves actual issues, and this is especially the case when it has essentially no teeth whatsoever as a satire of the status quo.  (It's a movie that, except for the fact it was made by a seasoned film director and written by a seasoned screenwriter, Drew Pearce, who is also a film director, I would say doesn't have enough understanding of the American film industry that it could satirize its status quo.)

But I'm leading with the pronounced negative, and I don't mean to sound as down on it as all that (The Fall Guy is already down, in fact, and there's no need to continue kicking it), because it's essentially good-natured and entertaining, even if "pronounced negatives" are going to keep coming up.  The main thing The Fall Guy wants to do, then (and one of the things it doesn't have any interest in doing, beyond using the name for vague IP awareness, is to adapt the television show upon which it is nominally based) is to fashion, from the raw material of a stuntman, an actual action hero, an idea that is obviously not that novel (e.g., TV's The Fall Guy) but is fun and uncommon enough to be a good hook; with this needle, it'd also like to thread into its action plot a story about how the Hollywood stuntman is dissuaded from admitting when he suffers, which redounds into the parts of his life where his injuries can't ever heal, unless he does admit he hurts.  The former desire is significantly better-satisfied, and if it still isn't that well-satisfied, we can deal with that later.

For now, let's meet Colt Seavers (Ryan Gosling, and yet I saw not one reference to Drive), a working stuntman who's recently begun a passionate relationship with up-and-coming camera operator Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), though their happiness is cut brutally short when a stunt-gone-wrong sends Colt to the bottom of a skyscraper and smashes his spine into many pieces.  Shamed both by his failure (it was, I think, a stunt he'd designed) as well as his wrecked body and new helplessness (I'm assuming this mainly based on my own understanding of human psychology, because we skip immediately ahead to 18 months later, whereupon Gosling has returned to a state of fitness you or I could only dream about), Colt ghosts Jody, and retreats into demeaning wage work.  Then one night he gets a call, an urgent plea to be a stuntman again from producer Gail Meyer (Hannah Widdingham), his job being to work as the stand-in for the superstar he's so often doubled for, Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose last movie in fact led to his previous physically-broken and currently emotionally-broken state.  So obviously Colt is unenthusiastic.  However, Gail tells him she's not asking for herself, nor for Tom, but for the director of the movie, none other than Jody, who's gotten her big break.

We can stop right here to wonder aloud if Leitch and Pearce believe that "40 year old camera operator" is the career stepping stone right before "film director"I frankly doubt it's that plausible a direct stepping stone to "cinematographer"but however Jody managed to get the gig of directing (and, it's implied, writing and directing) what appears to be a major, nine-figure-budget motion picture called Metalstorm, this screenplay never even attempts to explain, I presume because nobody's making a love letter to camera operators here.  It makes me mildly sad, even, because while a lot of the movie's problems would be mitigated by just compressing this into the span of a single film shoot (not to get ahead of ourselves, but this movie has a hard time supporting all of its 126 minutes), I can only suppose Leitch and Pearce couldn't envision a film director in her prime condescending to sleep with a stuntman, even when he looks like Ryan Gosling, and that's some alarmingly low self-esteem right there, so maybe these guys do need some Oscars.  If you object that, hey, this screenplay just doesn't want to get into power dynamics, propriety and the appearance of propriety, know, things that might have actually given Colt and Jody interesting things to talk about, but we're getting ahead of ourselves againI have some bad news for you regarding the sequence where Colt appears on the set to do his stunts, and it turns out Jody didn't ask for him, and actually hates his guts for leaving her, so she uses her authority as her former sexual partner's director to set fire to his body and throw him into a rock, repeatedly.

The whole thing, it so happens, is a ruse cooked up by Gail, because she needs Colt's help to solve an urgent mystery: Tom has up and vanished, and only his stunt-double, who knows him as well as anybody, might have the instincts to find him; more practically, he's a guy she knows, but who doesn't matter, as she tells him right to his face, though she's sure he has enough residual affection for Jody that he'll take on the mission.  And so he does, and follows the traces of Tom's last day above ground in Sydney, Australia**, while still managing his day job and navigating the broken pieces of his relationship with Jody, which may yet have hope of being put back together.  That prospect is threatened again, however, when Colt finds an answer to his mystery, and stumbles ass-backwards into being framed for murderbecoming "the fall guy," as it were.

So one problem here, amongst several, is that I am reasonably confident the actual "plot" of this movie makes no sensebizarrely, it makes "more" sense later, but only in ways that make the previous first part of it make lessand while storytelling clarity has never been Leitch's talent nor an apparent goal in his films, a certain instinct for narrative propulsion always has, so it's almost confusing how much downtime this one gives you to ponder how its plot doesn't make sense, using something like the entire middle hour of the movie to bounce back and forth between all those plot scenes and that same scene, which it uses about four times, where Gosling and Blunt have the same conversation over and over.  Another problem is that it's remarkably deep into the movie before you'd guess this movie has "a plot" at all if you didn't already know what it was, and it's not using that time especially well (it's not an unpleasant lead-up, but it undoubtedly plays into how the movie feels like it should be over twenty minutes before it is).  There's been some effort to position this as a romantic action-comedy, and I expect Leitch believed that was what he was making, which is worse than if he hadn't, because Jody falls into a deeply uncanny valley between "prize for making it to the end alive" and "actual character," and she mostly comes across like an asshole.  I don't dislike the idea of the scene where she sets Colt on fire repeatedly; I think it'd be much funnier if we had a sense Colt "deserved" it.  But we're in a slimily synthetic place, screenplay-wise, as far as this romance goes, with a break-up that can't contemplate actually making Colt the bad guy who made purposefully hurtful decisions, but still wants to justify Jody treating him like one anyway.  I don't think there's been "an effort" in the marketing, but I've seen at least one person call it a "sexy romantic comedy," and outside of a final gesture that feels halfway sexy, involving a metaphor for sex on a giant stuntperson air cushion, I can assume they're only responding to Gosling drenched in sweat; Blunt, though, is barely allowed to be a physical creature, except that she's a fine form to hang jumpsuits off of.  Besides that, her primary function is basically to, like, just stare at monitors for the entire film.

She's striving to be enchanting within the limits of the material, and has good chemistry with Gosling, so that's nice.  But these are stark limits: Gosling is better off having chemistry with himself, and his movie star charisma, offered by Leitch on behalf of all stuntpeople everywhere, is practically the saving grace of the entire project, so let's be thankful for that, since at virtually all times it feels like nobody is even in this movie besides Gosling.  This is somehow the opposite of Leitch's last action-comedy, Bullet Train, which luxuriated in having an enormous ensemble of sharply-sketched cartoon figures for its protagonist to ricochet off of; The Fall Guy frequently feels like Gosling's alone on set even when other people are talking to him, either because it's very soggy comedy that comes off like flop-sweating improv (Widdingham gets the worst of it, with a monologue about film audiences who demand "sexy bacon," though Blunt gets the most of it, with irritatingly repetitive dialogue that demands these two middle-aged people talk like babies, whereas Winston Duke, as the stunt coordinator, doesn't really register outside of how charmless his movie-quotation shtick is), or it's because the villains he faces are so generic.  The one exception, sometimes, is Taylor-Johnson, whose narcissistic star at least provides opportunity for broad parody, and it's pretty generic parody, but the actor has fun with it, increasingly so as the film goes along, so that my working theory is that he started getting bored and intentionally fucking up his lines by bizrrely elongating their vowels (e.g., "I mooove markets").  As for other potential vectors of comedy, Metalstorm itself becomes this strange tension at the heart of the film: any time we see any element of Metalstorm, it's the most basic movie-within-a-movie joke, and kind of just the one, single joke, "if you did Avatar with golden-costumed space cowboys, wouldn't it look stupid?"  (It does, indeed, look amusingly stupid.)  But whenever we hear Jody and Colt discuss any element of Metalstorm, it's a good movie nowa real movie, maybe even an important movie, a personal and intimate representation of Jody's heartbreak on film, not an expression of her hackishness, let alone a cognizable satire of modern filmmaking.  The heroine of Metalstorm, an alien, is named "Aliana," and, I mean, Jesus Christ, I don't know what to do with this, but neither does The Fall Guy.

But what of the action and thriller setpieces any Leitch film promises?  These are on solider footing, even if they're sometimes some pretty insular thrills, like setting a record for the number of rolls in a car crash, the kind of accomplishment that nobody but a stunt coordinator cares about because the point, for the audience, isn't some extrinsic metric but how it makes them feel.  (I sort of respect this indulgence.)  But there's not one really great setpiece here (cf. Atomic Blonde), the sort of thing that elaborates and exhausts and really satisfies, and the one that gets close, involving a car chase and a garbage truck disintegrating with Colt on it, tries to do way too much, not in terms of stunts, but in terms of components: for one, it incorporates Stephanie Hsu, whose character feels like she's just teleported in from outer space for all that her existence has been established beforehand, and for two, it incorporates one of those fucking dogs that 87North productions can't get enough of, and I'd really hoped they'd gotten this "DOG BITES NARDS FUNNY" shit out of their systems with John Wick: Chapter 3, but they evidently didn't, still treating 60 pound canines like an unbeatable superweapon that their heroes can use to get out of jams, instead of anything more interesting.  Moreover, the truck sequencewhich has some fine uses of twisting metal skidding across pavement serving as the only thing between Colt and deathalso needs to cross-cut this between the quasi-date he's missing with Jody, and it's just so mechanical and busy.  (The idea is already gotten across without cutting, when the truck passes the windows in her karaoke bar.)

The good news is that Leitch has fixed his sound mixing choices on his needle drops: he just plays the song now!  And I mean it when I say that's good.  (He's also prevailed on composer Dominic Lewis to use KISS's "I Was Made For Lovin' You" as the entire basis of his score, which is an indulgence I suppose I approve of.) As for the editing in general, this isn't Elisabet Ronaldsdottir's finest filmthe cutting can clunk in more than just this one scenebut there's a curious pattern that I decided I liked quite a bit, because of the goals this movie's set out for itself, where I might be willing to bet they didn't use face replacement on Gosling, or at least they want you to subliminally infer they didn't, with a number of sequences, which he couldn't be doing himself, going out of their way to show their seams, with a cut to reinsert the actor after his double's done the hard part.

For all my bitching, none of this is terrible, only that it's almost never as good as it feels like it could be; my favorite parts are all early, too (or as early as they get in a movie with a fifty minute first act), which doesn't help, with the best effort from Jonathan Sela's photography coming during an allusion to/parody of the immortal "Think" nightclub scene in John Wick, using blaring blacklit neon to afford a unique texture for drugged-up action.  (Sela's photography, for the record, is quite nice throughout.)  Even before this, the film's best joke in a walk, involving the annoying persistence of shattered stage glass, has already happened, in the same scene with its second best joke, involving a prop sword; both of them are driven in no small part by Gosling's rarefied comic ability to just sort of stand there goofily and be hilarious, though the former feels like the movie The Fall Guy should've been, one of the few beats that has access to a legitimate cartooniness in its slapstick.  The finale, meanwhile, is clever, but more meta than I think is necessarily good for it, and insensible in ways that don't invoke slapstick (in particular, I'm outright mystified by way the helicopter pilot manages to ignore the gunfight happening right behind him).  There's definitely bad in this movie; though I haven't made much of a case for it, there's a fair amount of good, too.  But the balance of that good might be Gosling's signature stylings as a comedic actor, rather than its celebration of the stuntperson's art.  When it comes to the evolving consensus on The Fall Guythat its underperformance signifies that the old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes blockbuster (which, for all intents and purposes, is an "original" property) is just as doomed as the content sludge that killed itwell, that's probably correct.  But it's hard to get too worked up about "a decent time at the movies" that's really only decent when you average its good and bad parts out.

Score: 6/10

*In full seriousness, I'm pro-"stunt Oscars" and, obviously, pro-stunt-in-general, but there'd have to be some kind of rule that triggers disqualification in the case of stunt performer death or grievous injury, right?  For instance, let's assume, arguendo, we've had the category, Academy Award For Best Stunts, all along throughout this century: who, exactly, would be the honored nominees foroh, I don't know, right off the top of my head2018?
**Jody later has a line that aggravates me out of proportion to its importance, when she implores Colt to get across "the border."  The border to where, Jody?


  1. Funny enough, I thought this one got steadily better as it went along, though maybe what I mean by that is less objectively "better" than "it finally brings all its disparate parts together and becomes the thing it's been trying to be." Up 'til the last act or so it'd been offering its action, romantic comedy, stunt-piece, and intrigue portions in a rather piecemeal fashion that felt like the movie constantly getting in its own way, and by the end it manages to comfortably just be an "stunt-piece-focused mystery-plotted romantic comedy action flick."

    On another note, I find it highly amusing that the only direct exposure I've had of Lee Majors (that I'm aware of) has been two goofy "hey it's Lee Majors" cameos in the last six months.

    1. I've definitely seen him before, but I believe also only in cameo form. (I'd be interested to get a taste of Six Million Dollar Man and The Fall Guy, in that order.) What was the other one in the last six months?

      The last half potentially has more stuff I'd outright cut. The part of that scene in Jody's trailer, which I didn't mention in the review, where Colt unaccountably decides to sneak up on Jody in a mask and threateningly grab her by the face, purely to establish her action bona fides for, well, I have no earthly idea why, just needs to go. That beat, anyway, really stood out as unnecessary.

  2. Oh, I'm counting my viewing of 'Scrooged' from last Christmas (prompted by your review, if I remember right!). I'd seen the movie before but had either forgotten or missed his "why, it's LEE MAJORS, star of the Six Million Dollar Man!" bit at the beginning.

    I hope I didn't get your hopes up that there was another Lee Majors cameo from this year!

    1. Ha, that's exactly what I was remembering in terms of Classic Lee Majors Cameos. Yeah, I thought maybe somebody else this year wanted to justify their "ch-ch-ch-ch-ch!" bit.

  3. I assume the Nope motorbike guy was 1)weird for weird's sake, though it's not usefully weird and 2)iirc the plot vitally needed a motorbike.

    I'm glad it was small-scaled, but maybe could've had more robust physical stakes. At a certain point, when even anonymous henchmen are getting up, it starts to feel like an exercise.